Sir Alex Ferguson has always had a selective memory when it suits him and a rudimentary examination of his thesis that Peter Schmeichel struggled to settle, in the same way that his £18.3m recruit David de Gea has done, shows up their flaws.
Ferguson was remembering after De Gea's poor display in the 2-1 win at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday how Schmeichel made his debut away to Wimbledon "on a Wednesday night" and then "gave a bad goal away to Leeds the following weekend." The Dane's beginnings for Ferguson actually bore out the standard which he set as United greatest goalkeeper: four straight clean sheets, including a debut – against Notts County in the First Division, 20 years ago tomorrow.
But one of the priceless gifts at United's disposal is a manager for whom no crisis is a new crisis and Schmeichel was, as the manager half remembered at the weekend, briefly engulfed by problems five games into his career which prompted a remarkably similar defence of him that Ferguson offered at The Hawthorns. In Schmeichel's fifth game, at home to Leeds on a Saturday afternoon, the then 26-year-old went confidently for a Gary Speed cross but missed it completely, allowing Lee Chapman one of the more luxurious goals of his career. Three days later at Selhurst Park, Wimbledon's John Fashanu beat Schmeichel to a cross to score and pencils were being sharpened in the press box. "Any goalkeeper would be under pressure from their kind of physical attack," Ferguson complained after the 2-1 win at Wimbledon – a line he reprised when claiming De Gea came under an "aerial assault" at The Hawthorns.
The most salient point is that Ferguson will not be shocked by what he has seen in the 20-year-old's two clanging errors and will almost certainly not drop him from the side which faces Tottenham on Monday, on the basis of that. There need be no guessing what United goalkeeping coach Eric Steele will be working on with him at Carrington today: Phil Jones, Anderson and even Fabio da Silva were all gesticulating to the Spaniard to lift up his elbows and use them as he struggled with high balls into the United box and was at one stage pole-axed.
But less easy to coach is the psychological dimension to overcome this early turbulence. De Gea has transparently looked like a player besieged and the mental strength which is a requirement of any United goalkeeper is the one that even Ferguson will find it hard to be sure is in there. Tony Coton, who was United's goalkeeping coach for a decade and the man who secured Edwin van der Sar's services, has spoken of the "mental strength, professionalism and winning mentality" that always set Van der Sar and Schmeichel apart from the rest. He was convinced Ben Foster had it too, which just goes to show what a difficult quality it is to discern.
De Gea's position is not helped by the exuberance being displayed by Anders Lindegaard, the Dane who seemed to be a back-up option when signed from Norwegian club Aalesunds FK for £3.5m in January. His on-field and general off-field demeanour have suggested he conveys the greater inner belief and he is not waiting by meekly. In a revealing interview with the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet on Friday, the 27-year-old said he felt that he and De Gea were on a similar level and admitted that he would be disappointed not to start at West Bromwich.
"It has been a challenging time," he said. "I felt being accepted is very hard. There is a hierarchy in the dressing room and it's based simply on how often you play and how good you are." If De Gea, who is seven years Lindegaard's junior, feels far more overawed, he can only reflect on Schmeichel's example. After the disaster at Wimbledon, he conceded one goal in seven games.
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